- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

VERENDRYE, N.D. - Two centuries ago, before Lewis and Clark went in search of a passage to the Pacific Ocean, David Thompson paddled the Columbia River, worked to establish a trading alliance with Mandan Indians and made maps of North America that ultimately became the guide for explorers who followed him.

A British-born fur trader, Thompson traveled more than 50,000 miles across North America. He learned native languages, made celestial observations, counted aboriginal populations and documented his discoveries in journals flourished with his own sketches.

A monument near this now-abandoned town commemorates the man historians think is to be one of the greatest explorers of North America. His name is inscribed on the pedestal of a 6-foot-high granite globe on the hilly banks of the Souris River.

But while the route of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark is full of visitors, the path leading to the Thompson memorial is nearly untrodden. The memorial, one of 56 state historic sites in North Dakota, goes unnoticed, except by bees that buzz the site from a nearby apiary.

It is “one of the oddest and most forlorn historical monuments in this part of the country,” said Tom Isern, a professor of history at North Dakota State University. Thompson “is not in the popular consciousness of the people of North Dakota whatsoever, or most anyone else for that matter.”

The rare visitor to the memorial learns that the geographer and astronomer passed through in 1797 and 1798 and is credited with mapping more than 1.2 million square miles of North America. His map of the Canadian west measures 10 feet by 7 feet.

“Thompson traveled farther and knew more than anyone else of that time,” said Toronto-based writer D’Arcy Jenish. “He had a mind like a search engine.”

Mr. Jenish said Thompson mapped most of the country west of Hudson Bay and Lake Superior to the Columbia River’s source, and the length of the river to the Pacific Ocean.

“He was the first white person to paddle the entire Columbia River, and he was probably the first person, period,” said Mr. Jenish, whose biography of Thompson, called “Epic Wanderer,” was first published in Canada last year.

Thompson could become less obscure this summer, with the U.S. publication of the book.

Mr. Isern said Thompson practiced “adroit diplomacy” and knew when to “shrink from a fight, thereby living to explore again … and make maps for his country.”

He “never fired a shot in anger,” Mr. Jenish said.

Thompson, who worked for the Hudson Bay Co. and later its rival, the Northwest Co., traveled through present-day North Dakota at least six years before the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Pacific Northwest. Mr. Jenish said Thompson and his party of about a dozen French Canadians were sent to North Dakota partly to establish a trading alliance with Mandan Indians, who lay at the center of trade along the Upper Missouri River. The closest Thompson came to death during his three decades of travel was in North Dakota, during the harsh winter of 1797-98.

Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804 at Fort Mandan, near present-day Washburn, as they explored the territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase at the request of President Jefferson.

Historians think Lewis and Clark used Thompson’s maps on their expedition.

A map of the Upper Missouri River drawn by Thompson or based on his surveys was copied by Lewis for the first leg of the expedition. Jefferson himself made a notation on the map: “Bend of the Missouri, Long. 101 25’ - Lat. 47 32’ by Mr. Thompson, astronomer to the N.W. Company in 1798.”

North Dakota and other states are holding “signature” events through 2006 to mark the nation’s 200th anniversary celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Mr. Jenish said Thompson should be celebrated more than the two American explorers.

“Americans have the ability to turn history into myth, and Lewis and Clark are the epitome of that,” he said. “David Thompson is not a myth. He was not an explorer in the classic mold.

“Lewis and Clark and other well-known explorers went on linear journeys, from point A to point B and back to point A,” Mr. Jenish said. “Thompson went everywhere.”


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